The picturesque landscape of Manipur belies simmering tension between different ethnic communities. The ongoing violence between the Meiteis and Kukis, marked by mistrust and socio-political tensions, demands a nuanced understanding.
Beneath the surface, a complex web of internecine conflict and a deadly trifecta of insurgency, narcotics and illegal infiltration paints a troubling picture of a significant threat to India's security.
The historical underpinnings of the engineered fractures between the Meiteis, Nagas and Kukis could be traced back to British colonial policies that sowed the seeds of division.
Manipur's annexation by the British in 1891 and "the planting of the Kuki tribe" deepened tensions, leading to territorial disputes and power struggles. Central to the conflict is the struggle over land and natural resources. The Nagas claim that the Kuki people "have no land in Manipur at all" and that the community was first heard of when the British "planted" them upon the Naga hills between 1830 and 1840.
The indigenous tribes, Meiteis and Nagas, seek to safeguard their land and cultural identity, while the Kukis are trying to assert their rights on hill territories. In Kuki traditions, the village chief is the proprietor of the land.
"The chiefdom is distributed to the villages for cultivation and for making homesteads," said Hoineilhing Sitlhou, a teacher at Hyderabad University.
The concept of ancestral land, ownership, and inheritance does not exist in the Kuki ethos; however, in contemporary times, Kukis own land in Imphal valley and parts of India.
In recent years, the Indo-Myanmar border has emerged as a focal point of concern. Manipur and Mizoram have historically experienced an influx of immigrants from Myanmar after the military coups in 1962, 1988 and most recently, 2021.
By June 2023, around 40,000 Myanmar nationals had crossed into Mizoram. Likewise, in Manipur, 2,187 illegal immigrants were identified within two days by a committee led by Tribal Affairs and Hill Development Minister Letpao Haokip. Instances of illegal immigration and infiltration have raised the alarm.
"The unregulated influx of undocumented immigrants presents an imminent threat, potentially offering anti-national entities a foothold within the region," said Khaidem Mani, Acting Chairperson of the Manipur Human Rights Commission.
Notably, the infiltration of Myanmar Chin-Kuki has led to conflict with the indigenous population, such as the Naga vs Kuki conflict (1992-1999), Kuki vs Paite (1997-1998) in Manipur, and the Kuki vs Karbi clash (2003-2004) in Assam.
Moreover, Manipur shares a porous 398-km border with Myanmar, enabling the illegal movement of individuals, arms, and narcoterrorism. Kuki insurgents, especially the Zomi Revolutionary Army (ZRA), under a Suspension of Operations (SoO) agreement with the Indian government, are deeply involved in this illicit trade.
ZRA leader Thanglian Pau was an elected MP in Myanmar in 1990 and General Secretary of the Zomi National Congress (ZNC). He was expelled from the ZNC for being an informant of the Burmese military. He now lives in Manipur's Churachandpur district, holds an Indian passport, and has changed his name to Thanglian Pau Guite. In Churachandpur, the ZRA functions as a parallel government, collecting taxes and ensuring travellers are not "looted, kidnapped or shot by other armed groups."
The ZRA insurgents exploit the vast poppy plantations and drug trafficking to fund their activities, fuelling violence and instability in Manipur.
"The ZRA has a branch that is active in Manipur's Churachandpur district, which is one of the areas where opium is grown," said journalist Rajeev Bhattacharya. "Drugs and narcotics worth Rs 4,602 crore in the international market were seized from March 2017 to June 2023. In fact, investigations following the seizure of opium valued at Rs 40 crore in Delhi on August 20 revealed an interstate drug cartel linked to Churachandpur. The Manipur-based suppliers procure the raw material from hilly areas around the international borders of Manipur and Myanmar," he said.
This dangerous synergy of insurgents and narcotics not only poses security threats to the national integrity of India, but also undermines social and economic development. Complicating matters is the influx of asylum-seekers escaping the turmoil in Myanmar.
India's non-signatory status to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Convention 1951 leaves these vulnerable individuals susceptible to exploitation by insurgents. Forced into poppy cultivation as a source of cheap labour, they serve the dual purpose of providing a workforce for drug production and prolonging instability.
The cultivation of opium poppy in Manipur is not merely an economic endeavour but a significant driver of the conflict. The ZRA's active involvement in opium cultivation was echoed by a senior Indian government official tasked to check drug trafficking in the northeast. This nexus between the Kuki insurgents and drug cartels represents another formidable challenge. The opium trade bolsters their financial resources, sustaining subversive activities and perpetuating the cycle of violence, the then Additional Director General of Police Clay Khongsai had warned in March this year when a massive drive against poppy farming was going on.
As poppy cultivation expands, so does environmental degradation.
"Large-scale poppy plantation is a major threat to soil, water, forests, wetlands and rivers that make up our ecosystems and biodiverse nature. Adding to this is the unfolding effects of climate change. We must immediately act to reclaim and rehabilitate these deforested lands to ensure that its associated violence is curtailed as well as give back life to these forests," environment activist Ram Wangkheirakpam said, underscoring the gravity of the situation.
The total area of poppy cultivation is 15,497 acres, out of which 13,122 acres were in Kuki-Chin-dominated areas, the Narcotics and Affairs of Border (NAB) data shows.
According to Surjakanta Sarangthem and Dr Anand Kumar, in 2010, about 1.68 million hectares accounting for 77 per cent of Manipur's land area were covered by natural forests. By 2021, the state lost over 46,000 hectares of vital primary forest. Churachandpur district lost the most at 64,000 hectares of tree cover. What we see is a gradual expansion of the 'Golden Triangle' areas controlled by the ZRA-dominated Myanmar-Manipur border, which is emerging as an opium cultivation hill that makes the drug trade easier.
The primary cause of the Meitei-Kuki conflict and the Kuki's demand for a separate administration is projected as a reaction against the Manipur High Court order on the Meiteis' demand for Scheduled Tribes (ST) status, identity politics and contestation over land and resources.
However, it cannot be fully comprehended without considering infiltration, proliferation of narcotics and the insurgents who control it. This complex interplay threatens India's national security, making it imperative to address the root causes of violence in Manipur.
Addressing this complex issue demands a holistic approach encompassing socio-political dialogue, immediate implementation of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) and stringent law enforcement. Stability in Manipur hinges on collaborative partnerships between the state, central authorities and local communities.
(Dr Billie Thoidingjam Guarino is a US-based academic whose research areas include resistance movements and conflicts in South and Southeast Asia.)
(Dr Rajshree Keisham is a PhD in Sociology specialising in Gender Studies and Socio Anthropology.)
Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.